Joshua Donn
Joshua Donn

Source: BBO

This Sunday, October 21/2018, at 1PM US Eastern Time (7PM Central European Time), we had a special 1 hour teaching session with star player BBO Star JDonn (Josh Donn). The topic was “Building a fence around partner”. For the BBOers who were not able to attend the lecture, let’s dive into the review now.

Hi everyone.

Most of the time, I lecture about bidding. But today, I want to discuss a topic in defense.

Defending is usually considered the most difficult part of bridge, but it’s also very important. I am going to talk about building a fence around partner. What I mean by that is how you can help prevent partner from going wrong. This will not be about signaling, rather it will be about logic. Let me show you what I mean.

You hold AT976 KQ63 A9 54. You open the bidding 1. The next player doubles. Partner bids 4. It goes pass, you pass, and the player on your left bids 5, showing a very good hand with long diamonds. All pass and your partner is on lead.

Partner leads the king of spades, and dummy comes down with:

32 T2 T754 KT986.

Let’s think about the hand. Partner usually has five spades for the preemptive jump to 4. In that case, your side is only cashing one spade trick. Partner might even have six spades and declarer will be ruffing this, but if that is the case there is nothing you can do.

The issue is staring you in the face. You need a heart switch at trick two. That will get you three tricks; a spade, a diamond, and a heart to defeat the game. The club suit in dummy is ominous, and if you don’t hurry to get the heart trick set up then declarer will throw any heart losers on the clubs.

Most players would get that far if they are counting their tricks. But for many players, that’s where it would stop. They then start to rely on their fancy signals. I see this all the time. They play some spade spot card as a signal that they think is asking for a heart switch. Their partner continues a spade at trick two, and declarer ruffs and easily makes the game. (I will play it out just to put it on the screen) And you can all see the heart loser is going away on the club suit. Then these players come out with comments like these. “I played the ten of spades! Only one spade is cashing so that must be suit preference for hearts!” or “I discouraged spades, can’t you see a heart shift is needed?.”

They might have a point, depending how their partnership signals, but they are missing a far more obvious point:

Instead of relying on a signal where it might not even be clear what it means, or on partner figuring the hand out, the player holding this hand can control his own destiny!


Let’s rewind to the lead.

There is absolutely no reason in the world not to overtake the spade lead and switch to hearts yourself. If you fail to do so, then it doesn’t matter what fancy signal you made, or what partner should have known about the hand. It’s your fault for not defeating the hand.

Of course, it is great to signal partner, and that is a good way to help partner know what to do.

The point is, don’t leave it to partner if you can simply do it yourself.

There is another way you can build a fence around partner.

Let’s talk about those times declarer is running off a long suit, and you and partner both have to make a lot of discards.

Often in these situations, it is obvious declarer is just hoping that the defenders screw up and that one of his losers becomes good. And this actually works a fair amount of the time. (If you are declarer, don’t claim down one, run your long suit and see what happens!)

This is another instance, similar to the last hand, where signals may help but often you can do better.

Let me show you what I mean. This is a hand I actually played, with a strong partner and opponents. I picked up 873 K9 AQ43 Q972. I passed in first seat, two more passes followed, and fourth seat opened 1. My partner and I were silent for the remainder of the auction.

Responder bid 1NT, and opener bid 4. That is a fancy bid called a self-splinter or auto-splinter. It shows a good hand with long good spades and club shortness. Responder signed off in 4, and there they were.

I won’t focus too much on the decisions I made throughout the hand, because I want to focus on my main point at the end of how to discard on the long suit.

I decided to lead a trump, and dummy came down with T4 JT3 T865 AJ83. Declarer went up with the ten which held, and played a diamond to the king and my ace.

Knowing declarer had a club (rather than being void) since he didn’t take the ace while in dummy, I led a club to knock out the entry. Declarer won the ace, and finessed the jack of hearts to my king. I decided to take the queen of diamonds now and all followed low. I knew partner had the jack of diamonds, since with KJx declarer would never just lead to the king at trick two, and also he would have unblocked the jack on this trick.

I played another club, which declarer ruffed, and now began the avalanche of trumps.

Clearly partner had the queen of hearts, and declarer was hoping he would throw too many. So often in these positions, I see someone with my hand throwing clubs because they know declarer is out of the suit. That’s fine, but it gives partner a huge headache.

Poor partner had the guarded queen of hearts, and the high jack of diamonds, and he desperately needs to know which to keep.

How can you tell him?

Here is a hint, it has nothing to do with signals. Just throw away both of your low diamonds immediately. Then partner will know declarer is out, since there won’t be any more diamonds remaining in the deck. That is what I did, and partner had an easy time guarding the hearts.

There was another equally-good way I could have helped partner.

Let’s rewind to the beginning again.

I will play the first few tricks the same. After taking the queen of diamonds, I could have continued with a third round of diamonds. That would set up a diamond trick in dummy, but since dummy was out of entries it wouldn’t matter. Partner wouldn’t even have the jack of diamonds any more, and from the auction would know not to save clubs. If you wanted to play a third diamond at the point I played a second club, you had a great instinct. I decided to do it this way to absolutely prove declarer was out of clubs, rather than trusting the auction, and only then prove he was out of diamonds.

Either way, the point is to not give partner a guess about what to keep.

I hope this has been helpful. Building a fence around partner is a very important topic that is often neglected.

Signaling is great, but don”t miss an opportunity to help partner even more than that. Partner will appreciate it.

That is all I have, so it’s time for questions.


Q1: Board 2 – What if declarer finessed hearts instead of diamonds?
A: I am glad you asked that. Let me rewind to the beginning.

Declarer actually did slightly misplay this hand, and could have made it with better management of entries. But the mistake he made would have been made by most players.

Let’s focus on the heart suit.

Leading the jack is unlikely to work. Here, you could lead the jack and then the ten, smashing my 9, but that is a slim chance. And meanwhile that would require both your entries and you would be giving up on the simple diamond finesse.

That only works because I have the doubleton 9, if my partner had it then he would cover the heart ten. So leading a diamond to the king was better than that play.

But there is a better way to play the heart suit. You could lead the first round low from your hand. Look what happens here. Either I play the king, then my partner’s queen is finessable. Or I duck, and then my king is falling (that is a very hard play for me to make in any case). Of course I might not have a doubleton heart honor, but that is the best chance.

So declarer should have won the first spade in hand, preserving both entries to dummy, and led a low heart. I would probably have played the king. Now I might play a club. He goes up ace, and can try the diamond toward the king as a simple chance to make. Whatever I play, he can get back to dummy with the ten of spades and still take the heart finesse through partner’s queen. That would have been the best line of play, and in this case it was the difference between making and going down.

But even though the line of play chosen wasn’t absolutely best, I liked this hand simply to make the point about helping partner when discarding on a long suit. I hope that made sense to people.

Q2: Board 2 – how do I know partner has the Q of hearts?
A: Well I knew declarer’s shape as soon as partner showed out on the second round of trumps. He had ruffed a club, I already discussed why I knew he had a doubleton diamond, and that proves he had 7 spades. Therefore 3 hearts. Why else would declarer be running these trumps unless he had exactly Ax remaining? It makes no sense. Also the bidding meant declarer needed the ace of hearts.

AKQJxxx Qxx Kx x isn’t really good enough for the 4 bid. Anyway, maybe declarer would just be wasting time with only AQ remaining of hearts. In that case he has all the rest in top tricks, and it doesn’t matter what I do or think. So I was assuming the instance that actually mattered.

Q3: Board 2- seems to be a strong hand. It is possible to open with 2?
A: It’s really not good enough. Let’s take a look. 7 solid spades, ace of hearts, king of diamonds. So 8.5 tricks.

Opening 2essentially suggests game in hand, or a very strong hand in high cards like 22+. Here declarer caught an ace in dummy and still went down. So yes it’s a nice hand, but opening 2should be even a better hand.

Q4: Board 1 – what is the correct card to play by south on K if dummy shows Aqx and south had kj10x?
A: OK good question, let’s go back.

So essentially the question is, what if dummy was some hand like this.

xx AQx xx KT9xx (that is too strong for this auction, but never mind) And I needed a heart from partner’s side. I think this situation screams for suit preference. Assuming partner has five spades, we both know another spade is not cashing. It’s not the same as the hand I gave since obviously we can’t overtake to lead hearts ourselves with AQ in dummy. And it’s important to tell partner what suit we want. Maybe we have AQ of clubs over the king, and we have to switch to clubs now before declarer gets a discard holding Kx of hearts. Something like that.

There is a common defensive agreement, that in many situations where dummy has a singleton, the signal by third hand is suit preference since another trick can’t be cashing. This is sort of an extrapolation of the same principle. We can’t see declarer’s singleton, but we both know it exists. Suit preference signals in this situation are a pretty advanced concept, but I hope I am making clear at least why they are a good idea.

Q5: What defensive signaling system do you think is the best?
A: I think this question between standard signals and upside down signals. It doesn’t make a ton of difference. For most people it’s hard to switch back and forth between them. I can do it but I would say it took me like 10 years to be comfortable with it. It really messes with your head. So use whichever one you are used to.

There are slight technical reasons why one or the other is better. Just for curiosity I will give one. A lot of the time people like upside down carding because when you like a suit you can signal with a low card, keeping all the high cards to win tricks.

But here is a situation where standard carding is better. Partner leads the ace (from AK) of a suit, dummy has three small 432, and you hold JT5. If you are playing standard signals it’s easy. You play the 5, the lowest missing card, and partner will know that if he continues he is probably setting up declarer’s queen.

Playing upside down signals you have a terrible choice to make. You and play the 5 to save your JT combination, but partner is likely to misread it and continue the suit (trying to give you a ruff perhaps).

Or you can play the jack. If partner has the 9 then no harm done. But if declarer has Q96 or something, you simply handed him a trick outright. This situation is so well known among experts that some of them make an exception. They might play upside down signals, but standard on an ace lead when dummy has three or four small in the suit. Something like that.

I don’t recommend that for most people. I just thought it might be interesting to know, and give something to think about.

Ok I think that’s all for today. Thanks everyone for coming. See you all next time.

Don’t forget to follow us @